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Ousmane Sembène: Xala (Xala)

This short novel is seemingly light-hearted for most of the way till just a few pages before the ending, where it takes on a serious note. Its aim is clear – to satirise and criticise Africans who, post-independence, turn to corrupt ways and cheat the people. It starts with the first election as president of the Chamber of Commerce of an African. This Chamber of Commerce seems very much like a cartel. However, this novel is concerned with one of its members, El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye. Despite his continuous appearance through the book, Sembène nearly always uses his full title and name. (El Hadji is his title, showing that he has visited Mecca.) Beye has two problems, though one of them, the most important, we do not really learn about till near the end of the book. The one we do hear about is his xala, which means (sexual) impotence.

As a Muslim, Beye is a believer in polygamy. His first wife is called Adja (the feminine of Hadji, as she accompanied her husband to Mecca) Awa Astou. She was born Renée, a Catholic. She converted to Islam when she married Beye, though secretly occasionally attends church. Her father was horrified by her conversion and is still very opposed to it. She and Beye have six children. The oldest is Rama. She is a student at the university and the only one of his many children we really meet. His second wife is Oumi N’Doye and he has also has six children with her. At the start of the novel, when he is around fifty years old, he is courting a young woman, allegedly a virgin, called N’Gone. He has no intention of marrying her but is tricked into doing so by N’Gone’s aunt. There is a sumptuous wedding and, as with his first two wives, N’Gone gets her own house. (This becomes a bit of an issue later as Beye has three houses, the ones occupied by his wives and children, but wishes he had one of his own.) After the wedding, the newly married couple go to the bedroom. The next morning the aunt arrives with the red hen, who will be sacrificed on the bridal blood, its blood mixing with that of the bride. Unfortunately, there is no blood, the couple sitting apart, looking distraught. Beye has been unable to perform.

Much of the rest of the book is Beye’s attempt to deal with this problem. He soon finds, for example, that it is not only with N’Gone that he cannot perform, but also with his first two wives. It has never happened to him before so he has no explanation. He visits numerous faith healers and other traditional doctors (at great expense), all of whom offer a variety of treatments, none of which work. Has someone put a curse on him? He visits seers (at great expense) who tell him that it is someone close to him. But who? One of his wives? One of his business associates? All deny it. Soon the story gets around. His other wives learn of it. Rama learns of it, as does her boyfriend, a doctor. It eventually become clears that Sembène is making the connection between his sexual inadequacies and his personal, moral and business inadequacies. Sembène gives us a very dark and bitter ending, somewhat at odds with the tone of the rest of the novel, but still very effective. He also makes it very clear that El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye and his kind deserve everything they get and that they have caused much harm to Senegal.

Publishing history

First published in 1973 by Présence Africaine
First English translation 1976 by Lawrence Hill